Initial Idea and Methodology
For the final assignment of this course I analyzed Peter Wuteh Vakunta’s 2016 long poem Gravitas: Poetic Consciencism for Cameroon. Vakunta is a Cameroonian author and scholar who lives in the United States, and frequently publishes on the state of his country. Vakunta tries to make sense of the Cameroon Crisis and its history through his artform. Because analyzing this poem has a clearly interdisciplinary character, the methodology has to be interdisciplinary as well. Most prominently, it is a combination between literary analysis and history; the poem is a literary reflection on and interpretation of a historical situation whose roots are in the colonial era. Another methodological decision was to read the poem through a postcolonial lens; to do so, I used theories by Kwame Nkrumah and Dipesh Chakrabarty. It is postcolonial in the sense that the topic of the poem, the Cameroon Crisis, is brought about by colonialism; the deeply rooted cause for this crisis, namely the artificial detachment and later “reunification” of Cameroon, is a result of European colonialism. In trying to move beyond and make sense of this colonial residue, the poem can be called postcolonial. What follows is a short description of why I chose this poem and how I went to work.
Being both philosophy students, me and my group partner Marie had a conversation after class about the philosophy of poetry, and we decided that it would be interesting – and challenging – to analyze poetry for the final project of this course. I started searching for Cameroonian poetry, and, while looking through the website africanbookscollective.com, I found Vakunta’s poem. Because it is a poetic take on the Cameroon Crisis, I thought it would be ideal for this course. I requested the book from the library of Leiden University’s African Studies Centre and I made copies for me, Marie and Dr. Walter Nkwi.
Once I started reading, I realized that analyzing this poem will be quite a challenging task. This is first of all because it is very long: in almost 1500 lines, Vakunta gives us his take on the situation of his country. And in these 1500 lines he makes a lot of references to Cameroon’s history, politics, and culture. Not being familiar with Cameroon and its history before this course, I missed many references. While I managed to understand them through much research and with help from Dr. Nkwi, it was clear to me that this project was not going to be easy.
Having read and understood the poem, I decided to interpret it from the perspective of two theoretical concepts: Dipesh Chakrabarty’s historical wounds and Kwame Nkrumah’s consciencism. Consciencism, or Nkrumaism, is a socialist philosophy of pan-Africanism and decolonization. In order to unify and be free, Nkrumah argues, Africans must return to a pre-colonial state of supposed unity and communalism. I chose this framework because Vakunta refers to it in the subtitle of the poem; it was to constitute “poetic consciencism for Cameroon.” Reading it in this light proved to be a worthwhile decision, as many of his references became clear in this way.
While Vakunta does not explicitly refer to the concept of historical wounds, I felt that it applied well to the poem. Historian and postcolonial theorist Dipesh Chakrabarty came up with this concept in order to analyze situations that are formed through historical injustices, such as colonialism. These past injustices form historical wounds on their victims and their descendants. As Chakrabarty argues that these historical injustices are best studied by the bearers of their wounds, the concept challenges regular academic historiography. It highlights experiential access to the past and thus enables different ways of knowing and relating to history, for instance through art. By studying and understanding their history, the bearers of historical wounds contribute to “healing” them; Vakunta’s poem is a step in healing his own historical wound caused by the Cameroon Crisis. These concepts helped make sense of the poem and offered a framework through which to present my interpretation of it.
While these theories offered a fruitful methodological framework, questions concerning the method of the project remained. This was first of all because many methodological readings of this course were focused on audiovisual publications. I thus had to find ways to understand poetry, both as an artform and as a way to (re)write history. One difficulty I found in this regard was the relation between poetry and the potential liberating effect of art. It became clear to me throughout the course that understanding and writing history through art can have an emancipatory function that academic historiography lacks. However, I questioned this potential in poetry, especially in Vakunta’s long and difficult poem. I asked myself: who will this poem liberate? Or, in a more pessimistic tone, who even reads it? After thinking more about the poem, I realized that, even if it does not reach a large audience by itself, the act of writing it was liberating for Vakunta himself. Processing his history through poetry was a way to start healing his historical wounds, and, following Molefi Kete Asanta, a way to forgo the “conceptual imprisonment” (44) in which many African scholars are caught. Furthermore, this project could extend Vakunta’s readership. If I helped popularize an alternative take on the Cameroon Crisis, I help spread alternative forms of knowledge and hopefully change people’s perspectives on the situation in Cameroon.
Besides sharing an alternative and emancipatory take on the Cameroon Crisis, I felt that this project is a step towards decolonization of the university. I disagree with Achille Mbembe who maintains that only through radical reform can the university be decolonized – such radical reform that the university would cease to be a university as we know it. I believe that in our current academic system, however imperfect it may be, it is possible to create instances of decolonized knowledge. By that I mean forms of knowledge that are not written from a Eurocentric perspective, and offer a counternarrative to dominant discourses that represent former colonies as backward and undeveloped. Moreover, this publication helps spread information about the contemporary situation in Cameroon, thus educating the public on this topic.
Nevertheless, I did disagree with Vakunta at times; he was very polemical and, while he wants to promote peaceful reunification, his attitude and words sometimes seem to contradict this. My disagreement with him resulted in an interesting and more intense relationship with the poem and this project.
Positives and Negatives
One of the main positive aspects of this project was that I was introduced to new ways of publishing and presenting my work. The digital world offers many possibilities for innovative scholarship, and I believe that historians are very little aware of them. Not only is it possible to reach a wider audience through digital publishing, but one can also present one’s work in a more interactive way. The digital world offers possibilities to present one’s findings in a visual and interactive way, thus conveying a clear image to the reader. I am happy with the experience I now have in this field.
However, the biggest problems I had with this project also had to do with digital publishing. I had a clear image in mind of how I wanted the project to look like, but I had little idea of how to realize this. Figuring out how to work with the website thus took more time than I would have wanted. Moreover, the specific way I wanted to present the project was not possible. I wanted it to look like a website where music lyrics are transcribed and interpreted by independent users (genius.com), but this website’s software was not freely available. While this was a small setback, Thomas from the African Studies Centre helped make the presentation look as close to the original idea as possible.
Another problem I encountered was staying in touch with Vakunta himself. When I first emailed him, he seemed excited to collaborate with the project – as I found out, he is quite eager to promote his own work – and we agreed to talk on Skype. When it actually came to the point of Skyping, however, he became more reluctant and neither of our two Skype appointments actually happened. He also canceled neither appointment beforehand, leading me to wait behind my computer screen for no reason. As time went on, it was not clear whether he actually still wanted to collaborate, since he often took very long to respond and seemed hesitant to talk to me. Despite this, I tried to maintain contact with him and interacted with him in a respectful way. And in the end, instead of Skyping, I emailed him the questions I wanted to ask him. He promised to respond to them, but I have not heard from him yet. While it could add to the project, his personal contribution is not essential, and might even distort my reading and analysis of the poem.
Personal Role, Decisions, Insights
My individual role consisted of contacting Vakunta and maintaining this contact. I also took care of most of the appointments with Dr. Nkwi. Besides that, I provided part of the conceptual framework for this project; I read Chakrabarty’s paper on historical wounds for another course, and thought it would be ideal to use here as well. Moreover, I transcribed the majority of the lines used in the publication, and I came up with the way to present the project digitally.
The most important decision I made during this project was which artwork to analyze. I think it was a good decision to analyze Gravitas: its description appealed to me and it dealt directly with the Cameroon Crisis. While I am happy with this decision, I could have taken some more time to think about what to analyze. As mentioned earlier, analyzing such a long poem is not easy, and it forced me to rethink the way I wanted to publish the project. As many other students wrote about Sapin’s painting, I had to think of a different mode of publishing than others.
I gained a number of new insights during this project. First of all, it introduced me to new methods of presenting my work, which has changed my perspective on the papers I write. While I always take great care in writing term papers, a feeling of uselessness creeps up on me while writing: what is going to happen to my carefully constructed paper? An instructor was probably going to read it once and then discard it, leaving it never to be looked at again. I therefore appreciate the fact that our final projects are going to be published on a website. This changed my perspective on my work, realizing that what I write can have an impact in the “real world.” Knowing that anyone could read this project also made me take even more care in the project than I normally do.
Secondly, it changed my perspective on the relationship between art and academia. While I always thought that art has the potential to offer a critical mirror for society, I never thought about it as a way to re-write history. This changed with this course, especially after meeting Sapin and hearing him talk about his work. I now see artists as potential historians as well, being able to write alternative histories through their work. This also influenced my perspective on the relationship between power and historiography. Having read Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Silencing the Past in preparation for this course, I was aware of the fact that historical knowledge production is a process of power with real life consequences. As Trouillot tellingly puts it, “The forces I will expose are less visible than gunfire, class property, or political crusades. I want to argue that they are no less powerful” (xxiii). Not only written, academic histories are situated in the power dynamics of historiography; art is also an important actor here. By reinterpreting the past and offering a counternarrative to dominant discourses through his poem, Vakunta’s positions himself in the forcefield of historiography.
In conclusion, making this project for this course change my attitude towards academic historiography and taught me useful skills. While challenging at times, it was a rewarding experience. I believe that I delivered a well-researched and nicely presented online publication. I hope it will be able to increase the reach of Vakunta’s work and educate the broader public on the Cameroon Crisis.
Asante, Molefi Kete. “Telling an African Social Sciences Narrative: An Approach.” In We Will Tell Our Own Story! Edited by Adebayo C. Akomolafe et al., 29-45. Brooklyn: Universal White, 2016.
Mbembe, Achille. “Decolonizing the University: New Directions.” Arts & Humanities in Higher Education 15, no. 1 (2016): 29-45.
Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. Boston: Beacon Press, 1995.
Vakunta, Peter Wuteh. Gravitas: Poetic Consciencism for Cameroon. Bamenda: Langaa RPCIG, 2016.